While driving between two of my local bookstores to pre-sign copies of my forthcoming memoir (in L.A., “local” meaning an hour apart), I was struck by the fact that while I’ve had many loves in my life (film, little league baseball, my wife), my oldest romance is with the smell of a new book.
The first of the many notable bookstores that touched my life was the flagship Kroch’s & Brentano’s in downtown Chicago, where at six years old I’d let go of my mother’s hand and wander among the towering shelves. At eight, I would ride my bike 10 blocks to the little Bookstall at Chestnut Court in Winnetka, two dollars in my pocket and hell-bent on finding the latest James Bond paperback. Once, I was so excited to dig in that I began reading on the way home and crashed my bike into a parked car.
Over four cold undergraduate winters, I spent more hours in the cozy Harvard Bookstore than I did in the stacks of the under-heated Widener Library. During a delirious spring break, after busking on the streets of San Francisco, I would collect the dimes and quarters from my top hat, stuff them into little paper rolls from the bank, and head for the legendary City Lights Booksellers to spend it all. As an intern at The New Republic, I spent my first summer after college enduring long, sticky D.C. nights taking refuge in the air-conditioned comfort of Politics & Prose, inevitably leaving with armloads of remaindered paperbacks that have followed me, browning and tattered, from house to house, where they continue to line my overflowing shelves.
I moved to L.A. in 1975, the same year that Book Soup opened. Conveniently located across the street from Tower Records (a magnet in its own right), it was Ground Zero for my twenties and the destination of choice for every aspiring screenwriter in search of inspiration and community. Even late at night, bleary-eyed from 12 hours in the editing room, or high after an overcrowded, pot-clouded party but not yet ready to go home, I could always count on running into someone I knew mingling with the nightcrawlers and UCLA co-eds lined four-deep at the tables.
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Yet, it was only days ago that Book Soup’s owners announced they were putting the store up for sale, along with the venerable Vroman’s in Pasadena. Word is that Diesel, the charming book nook in the Brentwood Mart, might soon be closing, as was the fate of my beloved Duttons in Valley Village. It’s dawning on me that the outlook for authors can feel equally dire. How is it that in a country of 334 million people, selling five thousand books is likely to get you on that week’s New York Times bestseller list?
Even that level of success requires authors to fight tooth and nail and trade every possible favor as the marketing budgets at publishers, including the big ones, continue to dwindle. My friend, Mark Harris, author of three marvelous books with a fourth on the way, likes to say, “We are all Willy Loman; we sell books one at a time.” Book coverage in major media has all but disappeared, including at the L.A. Times. And the competition! Each year, up to one million traditionally published books are released, plus two to three million self-published ones. No wonder the profit margins for bookstores are so small.
All this might be enough to put me in a eulogizing spirit if I wasn’t so astonishingly proud to now call myself an author. Still, in my darker moments, I wonder: Is it possible I’ve arrived too late at the party? Even as I try to remind myself not to feel so grim, authors continue to write (though it’s increasingly rare for it to be their only job), and so many brick-and-mortar booksellers somehow find a way to survive–even as online book sales account for almost three out of every four books sold. My childhood friends and I all thought our pal Brad Graham had lost his moorings when he left an editorial desk at the Washington Post to buy Politics & Prose–yet by all accounts it is thriving, recently expanding the mother ship and adding two annexes. I sense that same optimism in the newly minted Village Well Books & Coffee in Culver City. Even in the little town of Crested Butte, Colo. (pop. 2,000), where I’ve spent the past 30 summers, I’ve watched my son’s childhood friends, Arvin and Danica Ramgoolam, make a go of it at Townie Books (their motto, “Read Books, Drink Coffee, Fight Evil.”) These brave, reading-obsessed capitalists march on.
When I got out of my car, signing pen in hand, and entered Skylight Books—the fiercely independent, verdant Los Feliz shrine—I stood before the table of new releases, and indulged in a deep, reverential sniff. Nothing, and everything, has changed.